I am NOT an organized cook. Being an organized cook requires linear thinking, whereas my brain waves are all over the universe. I am an opportunistic cook.
I share this so you will believe that last-minute cooking can be accomplished without complex flow charts or a 12-month pass to McDonald's. If a head-in-the-clouds person like me can produce stress-free dining experiences without the requisite, weekend cook-a-thons touted by more disciplined folks, then so can anybody else.
Now, it's true that my husband and I fall into that most enviable of categories: "empty nesters." But bear in mind, you busy parents who covet this classification with jealous anticipation, there's one hard, cold truth you are probably not considering: Busy, child-free people require food, too. Some of them even require it at regular intervals.
Can you imagine?
So although I'm feeding fewer mouths on a day-in-day-out basis, the demand for consistent meal hours has not abated. Neither has our hectic lifestyle. So I thought I'd share a few culinary moves that provide me with a variety of cooking options in the interest of your evening meals coming together faster, with minimal mess and greater diversity.
Having 2-cup portions of cooked and chopped or shredded chicken in your freezer is like money in the bank. It provides great peace of mind.
How to use your Chicken Cache? That's the easy part. For starters, you can create simple pasta sauces, turn a tossed, green salad into an entree, make fast and tasty pocket sandwiches and tortilla roll-ups, assemble dynamite chicken sandwiches and produce delicious pasta salads.
I store two styles of chicken. For one style, I grill lightly seasoned, boneless-skinless chicken breasts and thighs then cut the portions into bite-sized pieces before freezing.
For the second style, I simmer whole chickens in seasoned water. To do so:
You will need a very big pot; one big enough to hold two or three whole fryers (You could cook one whole fryer, but cooking two or three isn't any messier and produces oh-so-much-more food for the future.)
After removing the giblets, place the birds in that large pot and add enough water so the chickens are almost covered but not adrift. Throw in some flavoring elements, such as a chopped onion (skin and all), a couple of chopped carrots and several ribs of chopped celery. For an extra flavor boost, consider coarsely chopping an entire head of garlic and throwing it in, skin and all. If you have whole peppercorns, toss in a spoonful of those, too. A little salt wouldn't hurt, either.
Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil and simmer gently for about 40 minutes, which is long enough to cook the chickens without overdoing it.
Remove the pot from the burner and let the chickens cool slightly, then lift them from the pot using tongs or whatever. At this point, let the chickens cool for a few more minutes so you don't burn your fingers.
Now simply separate the meat from the bones, skin and fat. Don't forget all the meaty, little spots on the back and around the wings; they are moist and flavorful.
The average, 3-pound chicken produces 3 to 4 cups of cooked meat. I have found that a heaping 2-cup portion is enough for most occasions, but you must figure out your own needs.
Oh, by the way, I could remind you NOT to throw out that wonderful chicken stock you created from boiling your chickens because it can be de-fatted then frozen for a future pot of chicken soup or something. But that might be interpreted as culinary pressure, producing an inordinate amount of guilt on your part, the stressed-out cook. So don't do that unless you really must.
But it really is a delicious jump-start to a flavorful homemade soup or sauce, so please consider the freezing option for the broth. Simply strain the broth through a sieve then place the broth in a wide container and refrigerate overnight. The next day, you'll be able to scoop off all the fat that will have risen to the surface and become firm.
THAT'S IT! For the grilled or simmered chicken, pack the measured amounts of cut-up meat in quart-sized, resealable freezer bags, then spread out and flatten the contents so they'll stack neatly in the freezer. (A thin package thaws faster than a thick one.)
To use the cooked chicken, simply thaw and have at it. If you're thinking about it in the morning, you can remove a package and place it in your refrigerator. It should be thawed by dinner time. If you haven't given dinner a thought until the hour has appeared, then fast thawing can occur with the help of your microwave's defrost mode or by simply placing the pouch of meat in another pouch (holes mysteriously appear during freezer storage) and placing that package in a large bowl of hot water. You'll have pliable chicken in about 20 minutes.
Think about how many meals begin with the instruction to "brown 1 pound of ground beef." Now think about how smooth and speedy your evening meal preparations would be if that step was already accomplished and the results hanging out in the freezer, right next to those packets of frozen, cooked chicken. Aside from the obvious bonus of minutes saved by not standing over a pan of ground beef (or chicken or turkey) while it goes from pink to brown, there are residual benefits: one less dirty pan and oil-splattered cooking surface to contend with.
And so, once again, I'm not talking about dedicating an entire weekend to cooking. In a mere 20 minutes, you can fry up one of those 5-pound family packs of ground beef or poultry, then drain off the fat and distribute the cooked meat among several resealable freezer bags. Just like the cooked-chicken scenario, spread out and flatten the contents so they'll stack neatly in the freezer and thaw quickly. For detailed thawing guidelines, reread that section of the Chicken Cache directions.
Do I really need to tell you how to take advantage of your browned ground beef? I didn't think so.
For a fabulous way to extend the life of your salad greens and keep them clean and tidy to the very last leaf, consider my Salad Box maneuver, which I shared with readers last spring. Go to my blog at www.janrd.com for the details.
Rule No. 1 if you're squirrelling away lots of stuff in the freezer: Keep a list. I've taped a sheet of paper to the inside of my pantry door, right next to the freezer. There's a pen on the top shelf. When I put stuff in, I add it to the list (name of stuff and date frozen). When I take stuff out, I cross it off the list. No more forgotten foods building up in the freezer netherworld.
Never make a little rice. Make a lot. Store the leftovers in the fridge or freezer for all sorts of offerings down the road.
When baking potatoes, bake extras for: twice-baked potatoes (any general cookbook will offer guidelines for making these), German potato salad and casseroles.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.